NYC works to reboot wireless network after GPS update crashed it

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Most businesses and government services around the country appear to have survived last weekend’s GPS week-number rollover, a global update that happens roughly every 20 years, but someone in New York City’s information technology division failed to update some element of the city’s private wireless network, which led to immediate service disruptions when the update went live last Saturday.

According to the New York Times, the update booted numerous city functions offline, including some of the New York Police Department’s license-plate readers, the Department of Transportation traffic-light programming, and communications at remote work sites for the sanitations and parks departments.

Stephanie Raphael, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications told StateScoop Friday that the city is now “working overtime” to bring the malfunctioning pieces of the $500 million system built by Northrop Grumman, called NYCWiN, back online.

“No critical public safety systems are affected by this brief software installation period, and we’ve taken several steps to make up for the disruption to the few isolated tools affected,” Raphael wrote in an email. “We are testing the equipment right now and expect to have NYCWiN back up this weekend.”

Few other organizations around the country reported bugs associated with the update, though more than a dozen commercial airline flights were canceled, all on Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft that had not prepared for the change.

The GPS week-number rollover, similar to the infamous Y2K bug, is caused by a limited memory capacity (10 bits) in GPS systems allocated for tracking the date, which must be reset every 1,024 weeks, or 19.7 years.

The Department of Homeland Security notified organizations of the impending change in the months leading up to April 6, recommending operators of critical infrastructure in particular that they contact the manufacturers of any GPS equipment relying on Coordinated Universal Time, the world’s primary time standard.

Tom Patterson, chief trust officer for technology firm Unisys, told StateScoop before the update that he’d been working with his customers to ensure everyone was prepared for the changeover. At the state government level, he said, it is generally the office of the chief information security officer responsible for ensuring any devices used by the government are prepared.

Several state CISOs contacted by StateScoop earlier this month reported that they were not concerned with the upcoming rollover. Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers told StateScoop he was familiar with the GPS rollover but that no states had raised it as a potential issue.

“It’s my understanding it may only impact older GPS receivers,” Robinson wrote in an email. “I think this is more of an issue for the manufacturers/suppliers to address.”

The next GPS week-number rollover will occur Nov. 20, 2038.

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